Overcoming Pet Vaccine Hesitancy

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How reps can help their veterinary clinic customers discuss vaccines with new pet owners.

Vaccines and everything associated with them have always been part of the daily vernacular in the animal health world, but a couple of years ago who would’ve thought that the topic of vaccinations would dominate every newscast, become part of the daily dialogue for so many of us and cause so much heated debate and division? It’s no surprise that the Oxford English Dictionary chose “vax” as its 2021 word of the year, when hearing terms like efficacy, herd immunity and vaccine hesitancy has become almost routine.

Like so many other aspects of human medicine, anti-vaccine sentiment has crossed into veterinary medicine as well. Veterinarians have always dealt with vaccine hesitancy and misconceptions about vaccinating animals, but the widespread information and misinformation of the past two years have caused an increase in attitudes among some pet owners. It can be difficult – particularly for new pet owners – to tell the difference between science-based recommendations and anti-vaccine ideology. Just try typing “should I vaccinate my pet?” into a Google search and you’ll pull up a mix of conflicting messages on the very first page. Along with recommendations from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) you’ll find sources who advise you to “arm yourself” before even talking to your vet about vaccines, along with claims that vaccinations routinely cause everything from deadly autoimmune diseases to bone marrow failure to behavioral problems.

A “top 10 global threat”

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, in early 2019 the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite available vaccines – as a top 10 global health threat. Since then, skepticism and distrust in vaccines have increased. Anti-vaccine proponents claim that vaccines aren’t necessary for healthy animals; that a single vaccine provides lifelong protection; that excessive vaccinations cause rather than prevent disease; that vaccines contain toxins and other harmful substances; or that vaccine guidelines are driven only by greed. Religious beliefs, complacency, and lack of knowledge are other factors.

Veterinarians are probably more familiar with the science, application, and potential risks of vaccines than many physicians. In today’s climate of vaccine hesitancy, they may need to spend even more time and effort educating pet owners about the optimal vaccination plans for their pets. You can partner in this effort by helping them source materials and links from manufacturers and industry experts that provide clear, accurate information about both core and any non-core vaccines they may recommend based on a pet’s unique needs. As a starting point, you can find resource links at: aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/vaccination-canine-configuration/resources and printable downloads at: catvets.com/guidelines/client-brochures.

Core and noncore vaccines

Along with rabies, the core canine vaccines include a combination vaccine against canine distemper virus, adenovirus-2 and parvovirus, and may also include parainfluenza virus. Noncore vaccines include those that protect against Bordetella bronchiseptica, parainfluenza virus, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, and canine influenza. The core feline vaccines are feline calicivirus, feline herpesvirus-1, feline panleukopenia, feline leukemia (for cats younger than 1 year) and rabies. Noncore cat vaccines include chlamydia felis, feline leukemia (for cats older than 1 year), and bordetella bronchiseptica.

Despite our best efforts, research has shown that 20% to 50% of cats and dogs may not receive their appropriate recommended vaccines, and in some areas the vaccination rate may be below what is required for effective herd immunity against infectious diseases. The recent increase in canine parvovirus has provided an unfortunate example of just how serious this problem can be.

Parvovirus (CPV) is a highly contagious virus that appeared for the first time in dogs in 1978. Untreated, the mortality rate is over 90%, and the fact that CPV is very stable in the environment makes it easily transmitted from dog to dog or from shoes, clothes or contaminated surfaces. Years of widespread vaccination has greatly reduced morbidity and mortality from CPV, but last year some veterinary clinics saw up to a 70% increase in parvovirus cases. One theory for this spike in cases is that due to the pandemic, vaccine schedules were interrupted – particularly in puppies – which left large numbers of dogs unprotected. The fact that parvovirus cases increased so dramatically shows how quickly a virus can resurge when vaccination schedules aren’t maintained, and herd immunity isn’t established.

A One Health issue

Vaccinating pets protects both animals and humans. Thanks to rabies vaccine campaigns since the 1950s, the annual death rate in the U.S. is fewer than three people. Worldwide, about 59,000 people die from rabies each year with nearly 99% of those deaths occurring after a dog bite. Rising cases of leptospirosis are a public health concern since lepto is a zoonotic disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Once considered a “rural” dog disease, lepto is now more common in urban dogs, since the wildlife species who carry it are found in urban and suburban backyards.

For years, breeders advised small dog owners not to vaccinate for lepto, since as a bacterin vaccine it contained proteins to stimulate the immune system which could cause adverse events. Today’s lepto vaccines are ultra-purified, protect against up to four strains of leptospirosis, and provide protection for at least a year. It’s important for veterinarians to make dog owners aware of the potential risks for lepto in their area and discuss the pros and cons of vaccinating, explaining that adverse reactions are rare while the disease itself may cause acute kidney injury, leading to chronic kidney failure or death.

Most people consider their pets family members they want to do everything to protect. Their veterinary staff should be the trusted source for science-based facts on vaccinations, with consistent messaging and recommendations from the front desk staff to technicians and doctors. Creating individualized vaccination plans that include core and noncore vaccines based on each pet’s age, activities and environment show pet owners that the clinic isn’t pushing a one-size-fits-all protocol for their patients.

Helping your customers source the tools that can help them build trust and confidence with their vaccine-hesitant clients will improve the overall perception of vaccines and most importantly, protect more pets from preventable disease.


Lifestyle-based Vaccine Calculator

AAHA offers a Lifestyle-based Vaccine Calculator as part of its bundle of resources. Once the pet owner has selected the age of the dog, they then select all the lifestyle-based scenarios that apply before clicking on a vaccine suggestions link. Select all that apply to the dog:

  • Has close contact with coughing dogs.
  • Enjoys meeting or playing with other dogs
  • Stays in a boarding kennel
  • Spends time in doggie daycare
  • Attends or participates in dog shows
  • Lives in, may live in, or visits a shelter environment
  • Groomed in a grooming facility
  • Visits dog parks
  • Spends time in a yard currently or previously used by livestock
  • Spends time in an environment with a high population of wild rats
  • Swims or wades in freshwater rivers or lakes
  • Drinks from freshwater rivers, lakes, or puddles
  • Walks or lays on soil where wildlife or livestock could have urinated
  • Lives in or travels to an area where Lyme disease is common
  • Lives in or travels to an area where tick bites are common (specifically from the eastern or western black-legged ticks, Ixodes scapularis or Ixodes pacificus)


Source: aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/vaccination-canine-configuration/resources


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